Coxcomb, Redcliff

Coxcomb from Redcliff

Coxcomb and Redcliff are two peaks at the southeast end of the west fork of the Cimmaron River. Coxcomb is one of Colorado’s harder 13ers, with a fifth class route up its south side, and a 5.5 or so notch splitting the summit ridge before the highpoint. Most people rappel the notch on the way up, and many also rappel north off the summit, a 200-foot (i.e. double-rope) drop. Dan had done it before with a friend, and was not interested in repeating it. Not knowing at the time how difficult it would be to scramble the notch, I decided to celebrate Halloween early by dressing up as a climber, with two 60m half-ropes, a harness, and some other random bits of metal and nylon.

Cliffs below pass
It was unpleasantly cold at 10,500′ in the drainage — somewhere in the mid-20s — so Dan and I waited around the cars for the sun to hit us, not starting until well after 9:00 AM. I struggled to keep up in my costume on the slightly uphill trail, but was grateful for the warmth the effort generated. Dan eventually left the trail to head up U4, an almost-13er to the west, while I continued up the trail to the pass at the valley’s head. The trail crosses west (into the sun!), crossing a couple of clean-looking springs, then switchbacks through some unstable talus, where it has been rerouted a couple of times due to rockfall. As I neared the pass, I admired some odd pillars and cliffs to the right, and Coxcomb’s low end to the left.

Traverse to Coxcomb
On the other side, the trail drops around 400 feet into Wetterhorn Basin. The route description from Climb13ers said that it was about equally painful to lose the elevation or sidehill around Coxcomb’s south face. I chose the latter, figuring that it would be slightly easier with all the extra weight I was carrying; in retrospect, I agree that neither way seems clearly faster or easier. I found some game trails that helped in the miserable sidehill, and even saw three bighorns running away below me.

Coxcomb climb
Reaching the south spur ridge, I hiked up a clean gray gully to its left, then continued on grass and talus to the base of the route. As the options for easy climbing dwindled, a climbers’ trail formed where people were funneled to one path. Dan had described a short lieback/offwidth chimney as the start of the real climbing, and recommended that I haul my pack to make my life easier. I took a look, then decided to just go up the thing. As is often the case, it was easier and less secure to stay out of the chimney. I inched my left foot up a slanting crack, found nice positive features for my right foot and hands, and was soon past what I would call a low-fifth-class step.

Summit ridge before notch
Above, the climbing relaxed to fun third class on knobby volcanic rock. While the peaks to the north seem to be made of soft ash and debris, Coxcomb is some sort of harder rock, possibly congealed lava. The final pitch to the summit ridge is another steep chimney, longer and (I felt) slightly harder than the first, but still no more than 5.easy. I found various rap-tat on the rocks above, but decided to leave it in place. Once on the ridge’s crest, I enjoyed walking east along the exposed sidewalk, checking out Redcliff’s talus-pile of a south face to the north, and fourteeners Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn ahead, partly obscured by California’s smoke, seemingly inescapable even after driving hundreds of miles east.

Notch downclimb
I eventually came to the justification for the first rope, the steep, 20-30-foot notch before the true summit. I peered at a steep gully to the right, then lowered myself off the rap anchor to check out the downclimb. After a few moves down the initial crack, it seems to require a long step down and right to a platform, where the difficulties ease. It looked maybe 5.5 — doable, but harder than I felt like downclimbing with so much weight on my back, and stupider than I felt like downclimbing when that weight included a rope and harness. I retreated, rappeled, coiled the rope, and continued to the summit.

Looking down rappel
The justification for the second rope was obvious: a long piece of red webbing and an even longer piece of red cord looped around a giant blob of rock. There is a 200-foot rappel off the peak’s north side, leading almost directly to the saddle with Redcliff. While not necessary — it would be easy to reclimb the notch and downclimb the south side — it is interesting, and a much easier and more direct way to reach the saddle than circling around either side. I hid out of the wind to have a snack, watching some people wander around on top of Wetterhorn, then headed over to set up the rappel. Dan and I planned to meet at the saddle, but I did not see him yet. I could wait on top, but it was cold and I knew that, with my lack of recent practice, it would take me awhile to deal with the ropes. I joined them with a Euro Death Knot, then tossed both coils over the edge, watching dismally as they both predictably caught on the knobby rock partway down. Unusually for me, I made a backup with a sling and carabiner attached to my leg loop, then awkwardly lowered myself over the edge and past a short overhang.

Redcliff from Coxcomb
The rappel descends a near-vertical face next to a chimney/gully with some decent ledges. The ropes had blown east and caught on that side of the gully, so I had to stop repeatedly to fight with them, relying either on the ledges or the backup to hold me while I pulled, flipped, and cajoled. Along the way I noticed several other pieces of tat, which seemed too numerous to be merely intermediate anchors for people with only one rope. Is there a route on this corner?

By the time I coiled and stowed the ropes, Dan had made his way across the head of the valley and almost to the saddle. I descended some wretchedly loose talus to meet him, then we dropped our packs for the short hike up Redcliff. The summit view would have been better without the smoke, but Coxcomb was close enough to be clear, and the haze turned the ridges of the San Juans to the southwest into fading layers. It also absorbed enough sun to make it cold on the summit, so we did not linger before returning to our packs. From there, a loose climbers’ trail dropped to the main trail, and it was an easy and familiar walk back to the cars. We watched a hazy sunset, then retreated to our respective cars for a warm dinner and early night.

Fortress, Courthouse

Courthouse Mountain

The Cimmarons are a subrange of the San Juans east of Ridgway, visible from highway 550 as a striking line of summits banded by rotten-looking cliffs. I had driven past them any number of times on my way between Ouray and Grand Junction, but for some reason had never paid them a visit. Dan had expressed an interest in spending some time there as well, so they became part of my smoke-avoidance plan. They are not particularly high, and most of the rock is too rotten to offer safe scrambling or climbing. However, they are both quiet and scenic, especially this time of year when aspens turn, with striking conglomerate cliffs and fields of hoodoos.

Upper West Cimarron from Courthouse
After meeting Sarah near Ridgway, we headed up the good dirt road to Owl Creek Pass, entering the National Forest and passing through miles of aspens. By far most striking feature on the drive is Chimney Rock, a conglomerate tower at the end of a ridge north of Courthouse Peak, and a difficult climb from any side. We met Dan at the end of the good road, then took off hiking up a worse road to the Wetterhorn Basin trailhead around 10,700′. I had been comfortable starting from Molas Lake around 10,500′ in my normal summer gear (wool shirt, windbreaker, gloves), but this north-facing basin turned shockingly cold, and I hiked the first hour unhappily unwarm, with my gloved hands shoved in my pants pockets. Perhaps it was time to admit that it was no longer summer and break out some winter gear.

We eventually left the trail to follow a dry streambed just past Fortress’s west ridge, where it is possible to pass the cliffs guarding its south ridge and summit. The streambed avoided the ubiquitous deadfall in the woods, but was filled with loose rocks freed from the conglomerate above, and therefore slow going. Sarah kept her friendly but evil-looking dog mostly on its leash, which I thought unnecessary at the time: dogs are supposed to wander around and ineffectively chase small mammals on hikes.

Teaching the dog
Passing through the cliffs, the route stays left of a gully most of the way, then crosses to the right below a lower cliff-band to climb some steep grass. While there are numerous game trails in the area, and I found sporadic footprints, there is no well-cairned and -trod route up the peak, a welcome change from the more popular Grenadier peaks. Dan and I crossed the steep drainage at a likely-looking place, but Sarah’s dog was having none of it, frightened by the steep ball bearings over hardpack. This surprised me, as I normally assume that dogs can handle anything humans can up to easy third class, but we were dealing with a city creature, still learning her ways in in the mountains.

Exposed dirt-bridge
Above the crossing, the easiest route traverses right a bit, then climbs a class 2-3 break in the upper cliffs. Dog and humans safely through, we continued up the long summit scree-field, straying too far right into miserable terrain before finding a faint trail on the slightly grassy and more stable left edge. A final chossy and exposed saddle caused the humans more problems than the canine: dogs don’t understand exposure.

The true summit is one of a couple of incipient conglomerate hoodoos protruding from the peak’s main body. I hopped up on one to admire the large detached pillar to the northwest that looks equally high, and the precipitous north face. Farther north and west, the west fork of the Cimmaron River is flanked on one side by the ridge from Courthouse to Chimney Rock, and on the other by Precipice, Dunsinane, and a supposedly difficult 12er. The valley itself, and the slope to the west, are covered in aspens that were nearing their peak fall colors. To the south, Redcliff dominates the view with its intricately eroded north face (the south side is a pile of boulders). Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre, two fourteeners I had climbed long ago, stand nearby to the southeast.

Precipice between summit pillars
After some time on top, we descended the faint trail along the stable ridge, then turned to weave through the cliff bands. Sarah’s dog seemed less nervous by now, though downclimbing is difficult for four-legged creatures, and she seemed close to going head-over-heels on some of the slabs. Down in the woods, the leash demonstrated its value in two ways: first, the dog was too independent for its own good, wandering off heedlessly to follow scents; second, we ran into a porcupine in the valley, which could have caused a world of hurt. I have encountered porcupines a few times in Colorado and Wyoming, and have found them to be neither aggressive nor in a hurry. This one waddled away about as fast as it could (about a brisk walk), with Dan in pursuit trying to get a good photo. We hung out for awhile back at the cars, then Sarah, being a normal member of society, returned to town. Dan and I quickly tagged Courthouse via the trail then found some better camp spots to spend another few days in the Cimmarons.

Arrow, Vestal, Trinity… Storm King

Tenmile Creek and Grenadiers

I had already climbed all of the Grenadiers, in three trips down from Molas Lake: Arrow, Vestal, and the Trinities in 2012, Storm King through the Guardian in 2016, and the western ones out to Garfield in 2017. Since then, I had occasionally thought of trying a larger Grenadier traverse. The western peaks are mostly miserable talus-heaps, with only a bit of good scrambling around Point Pun. The eastern ones are somewhat better, though still nowhere near as good as the central ones on the south side of Vestal Basin. When I became aware, on a backpacking trip with Ted, of another moderate route on Arrow, the supposedly 5.6 northeast ridge, the time seemed right to try the traverse.

Sunrise on Vestal and Arrow
I have called Molas Lake a “once-a-year approach,” but it is actually not so bad: about 2.5 hours for me to lower Vestal Basin, most of which is easy by headlamp and scenic by day. I set my alarm for 3:30, and was off by 4:30, planning to reach the basin shortly after headlamp time. I meant business, so I started off listening to White Zombie on the run down to the Animas, then switched to slightly less aggressive music for the long hike-jog up the other side. Surprisingly, I saw no tents or other people on this increasingly-popular stretch of trail.

Approaching NE ridge
I left the trail just before the first meadow in Vestal Basin, crossing the stream on a couple of logs to find a faint use trait — this is Colorado, so of course there’s a trail. The obvious line seemed to follow a semi-treed slope or ramp up and right to reach Arrow’s north ridge. The “Northeast ridge (5.6)” is a complete misnomer: Arrow has a north ridge, not a northeast one, that ridge is mostly the right side of a broad face, and it is not 5.6. In any case, I made my way up class 2-3 ground to the right edge of the face, then followed it as it became a ridge for the last few hundred feet.

Upper NE ridge
The basin’s uplift layers have broken off along this route, creating several short, vertical-to-overhanging steps. Passing these required a few moves of low fifth class, but certainly nothing that felt 5.6 in my trail runners. I was a bit disappointed, but did not really mind, since it was pleasant in the windless sun, and the view of Electric’s nicely-layered east face led me to wonder about better ways to climb what is just a choss-pile from the south. The final stretch of the ridge is a nicely-exposed fin, more impressive than difficult, which merges with the standard route just below the summit. I descended the standard ramp, staying near the east side higher up, thinking as I shuffled down the slabs that this really is the only logical way to climb this peak; other routes are less fun and feel contrived.

Wham face
Once off Arrow, I boulder-hopped around to Vestal Lake to grab 2.5 liters of water. Other than snow-patches, this would be my last water until I was off the ridge many hours later. With a heavy pack, I started up the Wham face, hiking the low-angle slabs as they slowly steepen to the obvious grassy ledge. The standard Wham Ridge route hugs the right edge from here, climbing slowly-steepening blocky terrain to the face’s point. I had heard of a slightly harder route called “Center Shift” that climbed the middle of the face, and decided to try that instead. It might have been a bit harder than the standard Wham, but it was also less fun, a haphazard linking of slabs, seams, and corners, instead of a fun, blocky romp along an exposed edge. Once again, the standard route proved best.

Middle Trinity
From Vestal’s summit I followed the usual descent, down a gully on the back, then around left to the broad Vestal-Trinity saddle. I traversed along the ridge on bits of human- and goat-trail, then climbed the class 2-3 ridge over several false summits to West Trinity, knocking over a few pointless cairns along the way (it’s a ridge; you follow it to the top…). Middle Trinity looks especially impressive from here, with the rock layers tilting up to form a smooth, steep north face above a permanent snowfield.

Final difficulties on Middle Trinity
The traverse to Middle Trinity is a bit more complex, since there are a large pinnacle and a vertical step to avoid. The route skirts both to the south, passing some remarkably high pine shrubs, then regains the ridge at some unclear point. I remembered a bit of wet, vertical climbing on my previous traverse, but this time I followed an easier route regaining the ridge farther west of the summit. There were cairns on this path (as there probably were on several others), which I mostly left in place, since it is a complicated path that is unlikely to be worn in.

East Trinity
East Trinity is a quick climb and an underappreciated gem. From the summit of Middle, it looks possible to climb a chossy gully in the center of the ridge. However, it is only slightly harder and far more fun to follow the left side, climbing blocky class 3-4 quartzite the whole way from saddle to summit. There are a few loose blocks to watch for, and some serious air to the left, but the climbing is pure fun.

Ridge to Storm King
Now it was almost time to leave familiar terrain. In 2012 I had continued northeast a ways, then dropped down to the pass at the head of Vestal Basin, where I picked up a good use trail. This time I continued east, following the unknown mile-long ridge connecting the Trinities to Storm King. I knew nothing about it, other than that it was steep on both sides, with few possibilities for escape. It is probably seldom done, though I did find a cairn on the first bump east of Trinity, suggesting that at least one person had been this way. Though there are tempting ledge bypasses to the south, the best route tends to stay on or near the crest. Most of it is class 2, made tedious by the Grenadiers’ slick and unstable talus. However, there are a few short and apparently unavoidable fifth class difficulties as one approaches Storm King.

Final tricky section
Starting off, I crossed a talus-field and started around the first bump on some ledges to the right. When they proved slow going, with plenty of obstacles and undulations, I returned to the ridge crest, where I spied a cairn on Point 13,360’+. I stayed on the crest to this point, but did not find any register near the cairn. I found a couple of class 4 downclimbs past there, which might have been avoidable with some traversing or better route-finding, but they were not much slower than the loose talus elsewhere. I also found a small snowpatch on the north side, which I used to supplement my water. Not going near water between Vestal Lake and the drainage north of the Guardian makes it almost necessary to do this traverse with some snow around.

Crux notch and downclimb
Having found the first cairn, I expected to find one on Point 13,405′ as well, but it appeared untouched. It was also a bit trickier, with some class 4 climbing on the long climb up from the lowpoint, and on the left to get out of a notch before the summit. I built a cairn, then continued toward Storm King, thinking I was almost there. However, this last section proved to be the crux. The ridge narrowed and steepened, blocking any easy bypasses to the side, and there were several sharp towers and notches. The hardest was probably a notch with a fifth class downclimb on the north, then a step across a narrow edge to the next tower.

Pleasant jog home
I finally reached Storm King’s summit around 2:00 PM, far later than I had hoped. I did not remember how long it had taken me to traverse from here to the Guardian back in 2016, but I guessed it had been at least an hour per peak. That would put me on its summit around 5:00 PM, and at the head of Vestal Basin at dark. While that was doable, I was more enthusiastic about being done before dark than about repeating an okay but not stellar section of ridge and completing the traverse.

I dropped down to the saddle with Peak Nine, ate some Chex mix, and headed down Tenmile Creek. I reversed the course of my recent outing to the Heisspitz, making an angled traverse from 12,000′ to the saddle west of the Trinities. I found dozen or so cairns on the ridiculously-named “Kodiak High Route,” and destroyed them all, hoping to delay its turning into a beaten-in trail. I refilled on water again at Vestal Lake, shortly after running out, then made the mindless Vestal return. I had seen no one so far that day, and met only a group looking to camp at the beaver ponds, and a solo backpacker just before the train tracks. Back at the parking lot well before dark, I found only three other cars. Finally the late-season San Juans are becoming as quiet as I expect.

Hayden to Three Fingers

Imogene Pass

The line of peaks west of Red Mountain Pass demonstrates perfectly how Colorado has so many 13ers, including 264 in the San Juans alone. Between Ouray and Ophir Pass, there are about a dozen points along a high, broad ridge, each rising no more than 300-500 feet — just enough to count as “peaks.” None is particularly notable or difficult, though all have fine views of the surrounding rotten, colorful cliffs and slopes. With a short and fun bike shuttle, I was able to easily summit eight of them in a day, from Hayden to Three Needles, going in via Richmond Pass and out Porphyry Basin. Only two sections were harder than class 2: a short stretch between T8 and T7, and the summit knob of Three Needles, which would have been class 2 if I had gone around the west side.

Richmond Pass and Hayden
After my pathetic showing the day before, I got a respectably early start, sleeping where I left my bike on the Black Bear Pass road, driving down the north side of Red Mountain Pass in the morning, and starting shortly after headlamp time. The Richmond Pass trailhead is not obvious: I parked at the Ironton road, then followed some flagging and old mining roads back south through the woods until I ran into the obvious and well-used trail near the trail register, located some 100 yards into the woods. Once on-route, I motored up the pleasantly steep switchbacks, which climb through a large aspen grove from the road all the way to treeline, from which the pass and Hayden Peak are visible.

Hayden North, plus Wetterhorn and Uncompahgre
From the saddle, the main trail continues to join the Imogene Pass road, but an obvious use trail takes off along the ridge, skirting some choss pinnacles before switchbacking up the final talus-pile. The pleasantly sharp peak I had seen from below turned out to be an obstacle instead of Hayden North, so I dismissed the though of adding another peak to my day. The Imogene Pass road was already seeing some traffic, though the Jeeps were too far away to be heard over my music.

Returning to the pass, I followed the trail a short distance, then gained the ridge at a bump before T8. The crest became narrow and chossy, then broadened again as it merged into the gentle summit mound. Unlike on Hayden, I found a register, and was surprised to be once again following a familiar (possibly unintentional) self-parody:

Name redacted to protect the ridiculous

I dropped off the broad summit plateau toward T7 on a faint trail, crossing the saddle and continuing along the narrowing ridge. I was surprised to find some third class difficulties in this section, weaving around choss towers; equally surprising were the survey stakes along the way, possibly marking the boundary of the expansive Camp Bird Mine. Past the difficulties, it was another easy walk to the summit, where I was once again preceded by SeƱor Hashtag Vanlife.

Historic summit outhouse?
From T7 I approached Imogene Pass, where a half-dozen Jeeps had stopped so the intrepid explorers they contained could admire the conquered mountains. I climbed a nameless point near the pass to examine a structure I had seen, finding what looked like a well-built outhouse surrounded by a rock wall. It was signed as “historic,” and I couldn’t see inside well enough to count the holes. Thanks to the line of sight to Telluride, I had cell service for the first time in awhile (Boost Mobile, overpriced garbage that it is, does not offer service in Ouray or Silverton, among many other small towns). From this bump, it was a short hike to Telluride Peak, which is unranked thanks to having a neighbor a single foot higher.

Black Bear Pass
From the summit of Telluride, Peak 13,510 and Trico (short for Tri-County?) were easy going. I crossed a trail pass on the way to Trico, inhabited by a curious raven who followed me for awhile and seemed to almost want to land on my hand. Trico is just north of Black Bear Pass, a popular and supposedly difficult 4WD route, so I passed a couple of Jeeps and an old Chevy at the saddle. The road would be the most direct route back to my bike, but the day was young and I was feeling fresh, so I decided to continue to Porphyry Basin, one ridge to the south.

The Chossolith
T10 has two summits of equal elevation, separated by a broken ridge. The northern summit has a faint trail worn in by Jeepers, though the climb is still unpleasantly loose. The ridge has no such path, and requires a bit of scrambling to stay near its crest. I had seen a large balanced block from below, and wondered if I might be able to tip it; unfortunately when I reached it, I found it was far too large to tip, and too steep to climb. I continued to the other summit, then descended another easy ridge to the saddle with Three Needles.

Three Needles’ tricky side
Porphyry Basin also had a few 4WDs, but the road does not cross to the Telluride side, and there is no trail over the saddle. Three Needles’ summit rocks looked hard, and the ridge leading to them was unpleasantly steep and loose. I slogged up the loose stuff, all the while wondering how I would reach the summit. From this side, Three Needles’ summit is a handful of broad pinnacles separated by gullies. The entire thing is made of rotten, layered rock that slopes downward to the east, like a leaning stack of crumbling dinner plates. It’s the kind of rock I dread, but know all to well; I’ve done the Eiger — I’ve got this!

I first tried traversing all the way around to the south ridge, finding one cairn and a couple stacks of more than one rock that could have been either cairns or natural features. I saw a likely gully leading to the crest, but was turned off by the steep, crumbly downclimb into it. I tried an option right of the gully, but was stymied by a gap and a sketchy bulge. Next I tried to follow a couple of seams just left of the summit, but once again the bulges felt a bit too steep for comfort. The key to climbing this sort of rock is using counter-pressure; ledges and faces that would be easy on solid stuff feel unpleasantly insecure. Finally I retreated past the cairn, and made my way up a gully and chimney that landed me just north of the summit, which was probably low fifth class and left me with some scrapes on my forearm.

Porphyry Basin
Reaching the summit, I saw the three needles on the other side… plus a gentle scree-slope that left me feeling like an idiot for going up the hard side. I snapped a quick photo of Blue Lake to the west, then circled around the south side and dropped into the gully I had first tried. The downclimb that had intimidated me was easier on the way up, almost certainly easier than the route I had eventually tried. I circled back around past the cairn again, then boot-skied down the loose eastern slope to the grassy plateau.

Taking off cross-county toward the parking area, I grabbed some water at a stream, then descended through a couple of easy cliff bands to reach the road. From there it was a fun, fast run to my bike. I thought I would have to take the Red Mountain Pass road from Porphyry to Black Bear, but some recent-looking grading activity has connected the two roads. I reached the pass with only a bit of pedaling, then had a fun four miles’ descent, coasting past aspens and swooping through the “10 MPH” gooseneck turns at quite a bit more than 10 miles per hour. Even this late in the season, I returned to the car well before dark. With a bike staged near Ophir Pass, it would be fun and very doable to traverse all the way from North Hayden to Lookout.

South Lookout, V5

South Lookout

South Lookout and Lookout peaks are chosspiles of very different natures on opposite sides of Ophir Pass. Since both are short outings from the road, I had planned to combine both with a bike ride up the well-grade dirt pass. However, I got distracted by V 5, and later got lazy, so I only ended up doing the first, leaving the second for another day out of Columbine Lake.

Paradise Basin from Ophir Pass
Most of the pullouts at the base of Ophir Pass were occupied by Sprinters, but I eventually found an empty one near the creek. It was cold in the morning, though, dark until after 6:30 and sunless until well after 8:00, so I got a late start, riding as quickly as I could up the Ophir Pass road until I reached the sun, then stopping to warm my hands. The road is steep in a couple of places, but generally well-graded and easily doable in a passenger car. I locked my bike to a tree at the obvious switchback, then followed a clear trail traversing into Paradise Basin.

South Lookout’s hard summit
The trail remains well-defined well into the basin, then gradually fades and disappears near the upper tarn. The route description I found mentioned climbing the “middle” gully on the east face; I chose the obvious chute left of the summit, which looked like the only sensible option. I followed turf as far as I could, then suffered the loose dirt and scree for awhile before eventually choosing some class 3-4 climbing to the right when the rock became solid enough. I passed a cairn, eventually emerging on a flat saddle, from which 30 feet of third class climbing led to the south summit. Fortunately this one is clearly the highest, because the north summit is one of three imposing choss-blobs, probably reached by climbing the gully/chimney to its right from near the saddle. My route description apparently described climbing this summit, as it mentioned a “75-foot crack,” but I did not try to reach this lower but far more interesting point. I took some pictures of it, the town of Ophir below, and the Wilsons to the west, then continued toward V5.

V5 from South Lookout
I ran into some thought-provoking downclimbing south of the summit, carefully descending some outward-sloping rotten ledges covered in gravel before reaching a ridge junction, then turned left onto easier ground, losing elevation as I made my way above Clear Lake. I was glad to have decided not to approach that way, as there were already a half-dozen Jeeps parked at the lake, and more on their way up the switchbacks from the South Mineral road. I did not see an obvious way up V5, but assumed that one would present itself as I got closer.

Reaching the base of the final steep part, I saw no direct path, so I side-hilled miserably around to the right until I found a gully leading to the ridge east of the summit. I found some footprints and a cairn along the way, so I was on the right route. There appeared to be no other way off the summit, so I reversed my route circling around the summit, then followed the ridge back toward South Lookout until I found a chute leading into Paradise Basin. Once I reached the trail, it was an easy hike back to my bike. Lookout itself was a short ride up the pass and about 1900 feet on foot, but laziness got the better of me, so I bombed down the road instead, to wash off in the creek and head into town.

From Soso to Hell and back

Oso and Soso

Mount Soso is a deep Weminuche peak immediately south of Oso. I had climbed Oso on a long day from Los Pinos via Emerald Lake, possibly the largest natural lake in the state. While Soso could be approached the same way, it seemed much easier to approach it from the high Cave Basin trailhead along Middle Mountain Road; this might also be a quicker approach to Oso. I initially planned to do it on a recovery day, but added to a late start combined with climbing nearly 3000 feet and ten miles of dirt road from Vallecito Reservoir, it proved too much. After a hike to the Dollar Lake overlook, I rode back down the hill and drove to the trailhead to camp.

Mysterious large cairn
It was cold near 10,700′, so I got a late start around 6:00, which still requires a bit of headlamp time. Middle Mountain is popular among hunters, so I saw several trucks drive by while eating breakfast in the car. I followed the familiar trail over a gentle saddle, then continued through several meadows to the open plateau, where I enjoyed the sunrise view of the Needles and Grenadiers across the deep Vallecito valley. I once again passed the 8-foot hollow cairn I had seen the day before, an impressive edifice possibly built by surveyors, then left the trail to cross open ground and occasional willows toward the peaks.

Looking back from first 13er
There are two minor bumps between the cairn and the first ranked 13er, and given the broad and gentle plateau I had crossed so far, I expected few difficulties. The first bump was a broad mound that I could have avoided to the west, coming up the second bump’s west ridge via its gentle south slope. After that, though, things got unavoidably trickier. South-facing terrain in the area is mostly gentle and covered in grass. North-facing slopes, however, are sheer, with large piles of loose talus below, probably a result of stronger freeze/thaw cycles on north slopes rather than ancient glaciation. North ridges are sharp, and frequently chossy. The result is that the multiple side valleys extending east and west are difficult to cross and often deep, forcing one onto a ridge with steep, chossy descents. This may still be a shorter and faster approach to Oso than the Los Pinos trail, but it is slow going.

Reaching the first 13er after some extended third class scrambling over a short subpeak, I found a register unofficially naming it “Elk Peak,” with a couple entries per year going back only a few years. The second 13er was only a short, easy distance away. Its register was nearly identical to the first, though one visitor had, apparently unironically, written “#vanlife” by his name. I gagged a bit, then recovered and added a pointed definition of “#carlife” next to mine. Instagram poisons everything.

Slow ridge to Soso
The ridge off the second peak was moderately tricky, being narrow and rotten, with pinnacles along the crest. I followed some mountain goat tracks traversing down snow and mud to the right, then regained the crest just above the saddle. From there, the best route to Soso’s summit plateau stayed left of the ridge, climbing a fun mix of slabs and blocky third class. One short turf-hike later, I reached the highpoint well before noon. Oso lay one deep and time-consuming saddle to the north, while Irving lay a bit over a mile to the west across a thousand-foot valley.

Irving from Soso
It was chilly, and there were a few clouds forming, but the weather was not serious, and I had plenty of food and time for the two-hour round-trip to Irving. But I lacked the will for some reason, so after a semi-nap on the lee side of the summit, I descended the easy east ridge to a saddle, then dropped into the drainage leading to Moon Lake, where I picked up the Emerald Lake trail. I had noticed a trail connecting back up to Cave Basin via Hell Creek, and I though this way would be faster, or at least easier, than reversing the ridge. Little did I know how aptly the creek was named.

Oso from descent
The hike/jog down past Emerald Lake was as pleasant as expected. I passed a large and unoccupied canvas tent above the lake, with a hitching line nearby; its residents were out riding somewhere, though I did not see them. I also saw a couple guys and a dog fishing in the large lake, but once again found the area wonderfully uncrowded. I was tempted to climb straight up either the Dollar Lake drainage or the one to its south, gaining something like 1700 feet to the plateau above, but decided instead to lose another 800 feet to pick up the Hell Canyon trail, which would require more gain, but might be faster than going cross-country. Unfortunately my misgivings, founded in not having noticed the trail junction on my way out, or on my previous trip to Emerald Lake, were well-founded.

Hell Canyon “trail”
Thankfully the Hell Canyon trail splits off the main trail exactly where the Forest Service topo indicates. After finding a bit of rockwork near the stream, I saw no sign of the trail in a field of ferns, but picked up some faint switchbacks on the other side, along with the occasional blaze. Sadly things deteriorated from there, as the trail disappeared in further ferns, aspen groves, and deadfall. I probably found it about half the time on my way up, as it quickly changed between being useful and invisible. It seemed like it had not been maintained since shortly after it had been built, perhaps in the late 1800s. I wish Forest Service maps labeled trails with their construction date and last maintenance date; I’m sure the FS records this information somewhere. The drainage south of Dollar Lake almost certainly would have been faster, as it appeared to be open turf. Hell Canyon, on the other hand, was a mixture of woods and rockslides. In the time it took me to slog back to the Cave Basin trail, I could have tagged Irving and returned via the ridge. So much for efficiency and common sense…

I reached the car late in the afternoon, partly pleased to have seen so much new terrain, and partly annoyed at myself for wasting time thrashing through woods, time that could have been better spent tagging remote peaks that will now require another trip. Irving in particular is painful to reach from any side, blocked by Oso on one side and the Vallecito on the other. After another good night of acclimatization at 10,700′, it was time to resupply and find some shorter approaches and easier peaks.

Knife Point, Leviathan, Vallecito

Leviathan and Vallecito

After a rest day, I continued my tour of the once-a-year Weminuche approaches, driving around to Vallecito Reservoir to tag a trio of peaks near Jagged Mountain. Vallecito is by far the worst of the long approaches: horse traffic, mostly from hunters, has turned the trail into a mess of polished stone, loose rock, and manure; and there is a knee-deep ford about six miles in, followed by frigid meadows, that must be done during the coldest part of the day. However, it is the only dayhike access to Johnson and Sunlight Creeks, so I have been forced to use it several times, first for Jagged in 2012, then for Grizzly and the other eastern Needles peaks.

Dawn on Johnson Creek
Unlike last time, I was visiting early enough for the campground to still be open (and crowded), but the routine was the same: start an hour and a half before dawn, do the ford shortly after headlamp time, then suffer for awhile. I grabbed a stick, rolled up my tights, and waded across with shoes and socks on. I knew this would be hard on my feet later in the day, but fording in shoes is much safer and faster. I quickly wrung out my socks once on the far bank, mindful that the clock was ticking for my hands, then jogged the meadows to try to stay warm. My hands were cold and painful most of the way to Johnson Creek, but I thought I fared about as well as I could have.

Jagged from approach
Sunlight Creek is another three miles beyond Johnson, so I had plenty of time to watch the sun slowly creep down the other side of the valley, illuminating a mix of aspens starting to turn and evergreens half killed by bark beetles. This part of the San Juans has fared better than areas farther east, but the pests have left their mark. I left the trail before the stream junction, near a hunter with two large canvas tents, then hiked upstream through the woods, looking for a dry crossing. Thankfully this is not the North Cascades, so it is possible to walk next to the Vallecito with only minor thrashing, and to clearly see the stream junction. Thanks to the low water, I was able to hop across the Vallecito on rocks, then cross Sunlight Creek on logs, picking up the now-well-defined trail.

Sunlight drainage
I was once again on the bizarrely-named “Kodiak High Route,” which apparently traverses the central Weminuche from north to south, crossing between Vestal and the Trinities, then Peaks Seven and Eight, then Six and Leviathan before descending Sunlight Creek. Doing it by itself, without climbing neighboring peaks, seems absurd to me, like spending days wandering through a department store without buying anything. I knocked down all the cairns on the way up the creek, an empty gesture as the trail is thoroughly beaten in and nearly impossible to lose. Still, after seeing the large deadfall cut on the Vestal Basin approach, it felt good to make some symbolic gesture toward defending formerly wild places.

(Butter) Knife Point
Where the trail branches to either side of Jagged, I headed left, following a path that leads to Sunlight Lake. I left the trail below the lake, following a small stream past two other minor lakes toward Knife Point. While it may be impressive from the other side, from this side it is a rounded butter knife of decomposing granite. However, the area’s several lakes and open mix of granite slabs and grass are unique in the range, reminiscent of the better parts of the High Sierra.

Noname Basin
Rather than gaining the ridge to either side of the peak, I headed straight toward the summit, climbing a steep slope of kitty litter mostly held in place by bunchy vegetation. I passed a mountain goat and two kids along the way, who were unconcerned by my presence, but kept a respectful distance rather than approaching to beg for food or pee. The plants eventually gave out, and I transitioned to granite knobs and boulders for a short climb to the summit. There was no register, but the views were worth savoring for awhile. To the south, a clean, sharp ridge connects Knife Point to Sunlight, which looks like it might be fourth or low fifth class from this side. To the north, a more complicated ridge extends over Peak Ten to Jagged’s west side. To the west, the peak is at the head of Noname Basin, with the high Needles peaks of Animas and Monitor to one side, and the Grenadiers peaks from Six to The Heisspitz to the other.

Peak Ten and Grenadiers
I took a different line on the way down, connecting sections of deep sand to quickly plunge-step to the base. From there I stayed high around Jagged’s east side, joining the well-defined trail leading to the base of its standard route. The trail seemed to disappear before the basin and small lake below Jagged’s north face, but it was easy walking toward the saddle west of Leviathan. Rather than starting at the saddle, I headed up more bunchy turf toward a subpeak on its west ridge. Slopes that would be bare and loose in the Sierra, or overgrown with slick grass in the Cascades, are pleasant climbs with Colorado’s intermediate level of moisture and vegetation.

Upper Leviathan
As I neared the subpeak, I was surprised to see another person descending, only the second I had seen all day. He turned out to be a friendly member named Grover, out for a multi-day trip to tag Silex, the Guardian, and Leviathan from a camp in Leviathan Basin to the north. He was as surprised as I was to have company late in the year on a minor 13er far from any city or trailhead. I thought his helmet and light mountaineering boots were unnecessary weight, but for once held my tongue. We talked for awhile, then he returned to camp while I continued to the summit.

Leviathan from Vallecito
Leviathan looked unremarkable from Peak Eight to its north, but is a striking uplift slab of quartzite from the south. The broken rock on the left side of the ridge is wide enough to avoid the slab entirely, but I chose to play on it for a bit of fun. I did not find a register on any of the three white and shiny summit knobs, and paused only briefly to admire the views before examining the route to Vallecito. This turned out to be more challenging and interesting than I had expected. The east ridge lacks the west ridge’s easy broken fringe, forcing one to deal with the slabs. Near the summit, they are broken in overhanging steps to the right, requiring a bit of route-finding. A short, exposed fourth class downclimb along the crest got me off the summit. From there, I found a zigzag class 2-3 path descending south of the ridge to the saddle with Vallecito. After a short third class step, the remainder of the ridge to the summit was straightforward and solid. I saw some old bootprints in the snow on the north side, but the crest was not hard enough to be worth avoiding.

This totally goes…
As I admired Leviathan and its lake to the west, I contemplated my options for the return. The south face is all some type of class 2, but from there I had two options: climb a small saddle southwest to regain the Jagged trail, or head down the subsidiary valley to join Sunlight Creek lower down. The side-valley looked shorter, and I saw a clear trail near the meadow below, so I opted for the latter. The first part of the descent was horribly loose and slick talus, but I found some decent scree and loose dirt to make most of the descent bearable.

Unfortunately, what looked like a use trail from above was only a goat path, which extended to the lower end of the meadow, then headed in the wrong direction. Fortunately this is Colorado, so the terrain is mostly forgiving and I did not cliff out. However, despite occasional game paths, my diagonal descent toward Sunlight Creek and the trail was slow and moderately unpleasant, with steep woods, short cliffs, and a couple minor bogs to avoid. Though this way was shorter, it probably would have been faster to take the trail.

Though well-defined, the Sunlight Creek trail is mostly too overgrown to be runnable without risking a branch to the eye, so I fast-walked the descent. Crossing the creeks at the junction again, I took a less pleasant route back to the Vallecito trail, pointlessly thrashing through some dense vegetation. Once at the trail, I knew I had about thirteen miles left. The trail has some rocky sections and short climbs, but is mostly gently downhill and fairly smooth, so I found a comfortable jogging pace, and even managed a legitimate run on some sections. I didn’t know this old body was still capable of such things after almost 30 miles. I passed a few backpackers and some dayhikers, but the trail was surprisingly uncrowded given the number of cars and campers at the trailhead. I reached the trailhead well before dark, but I was tired and my wet feet were sore, so instead of driving to my next trailhead, I stayed another night, falling asleep at a pathetic 8:30.

Nutrition note

I have been carrying full rations of just under 4000 calories for these recent long outings, a number chosen not precisely based on mileage or time, but by feel and experience. The core is a box of Pop Tarts (1600 cal), four Clif bars (1000 cal), and ten “fun-size” Payday bars (900 cal), all of which costs about $7.50. I top that off with whatever is handy and sounds good, such as sausage sticks, Chex Mix, or leftover Lara bars. Altogether, it costs just under $10 (~400 cal/$), and leaves me with a caloric deficit that my body can cover with breakfast, glycogen, and fat stores.

The Tenmile-Noname Divide (15h)

First view of ridge

Molas Lake is the main access point for the Grenadiers and their surrounding peaks in the northwest Weminuche. Crossing the Animas River a few miles south of Silverton, the trail drops 1500 feet from near Molas Pass, making for a brutal return and earning it “once a year” status for me. I had used it three times before to tag the central, eastern, and western Grenadiers, and will probably have to use it one more time for Peaks One through Three and White Dome. This time I used it to reach the peaks south of the main Grenadiers, between Tenmile and Noname Creeks. These peaks are normally climbed from Noname Basin to the south, after reaching Needleton via the train. However, the train does not work for dayhikers and, after having dayhiked Ruby Basin a few years ago, I knew that reaching Noname from Purgatory in a day would be too much.

Vestal and Lake
While not part of the main Grenadier ridge, they are part of that range geologically, being made of the same quartzite and other old metamorphic rock. Noname Creek appears to be the dividing line between this formation and the kitty-litter granite making up the Needles 14ers and the high 13ers of Chicago and Ruby Basins. The approach is even more absurd for these peaks: after reaching Vestal Basin, one crosses the 12,800-foot saddle between Vestal and the Trinities, then drops to 12,000 feet above Balsam Lake before finally reaching the base of the peaks. My return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas, taken on a whim, was considerably shorter, but far more rugged and probably only slightly faster.

My alarm was set for 3:45 AM, but I woke up at 3:44 and shut it off. I ate my Cup of Sadness, then had enough time for some more coffee before setting off shortly after 4:30, incurring two hours of headlamp. I have never made this approach by day. Jogging down toward the Animas while listening to some upbeat drum-and-bass by FuX, I easily found the dead-eyed drive necessary for such outings; it was going to be a good day.

Vestal and Arrow
I negotiated the two large slide paths in the dark. The first had been mostly cut through, while I had to follow flags through a jumble of downed tree in the second. Headlamp time ended just before the Vestal Basin turnoff. Shortly before that, I passed one guy with a bright headlamp, two apparent hunters with none (bow season has started), and another group of apparent backpackers. Why they were all heading out so early on a weekday, only a few minutes apart, will remain a mystery. The climbers’ trail I had followed in 2012 is now much closer to an official trail, well-trod and easy to follow. I was disappointed to see that someone had even sawed through the deadfall in a couple of places; perhaps soon it will start appearing on official maps.

Vestal-Trinity saddle
I was pleased to find only a single tent in the basin, for some reason pitched in the coldest, wettest, most miserable spot possible, out in a boggy meadow. Passing a nice tent spot in the woods 100 yards farther up, I continued along the now much fainter trail, then left it before the upper willow bog to cross the creek and aim north of Vestal. I found a few cairns this time, and passed right by Vestal Lake, a picturesque spot right at the base of Vestal’s smooth, curving north face. I paused frequently for photos of sunrise on Vestal and Arrow’s layered uplift, then headed toward the saddle.

Seven-Eight Lake
The inexplicably-named “Kodiak High Route” passes through the lowpoint close to West Trinity, but I once again followed the mountain goats to a slightly higher gap farther west. The snow on this north face was annoying, with a breakable crust over several inches of sugar, but I made use of the goat tracks where I could, and soon reached both sunlight and my first view of the peaks I intended to climb, still a valley distant. Knowing that I had to drop to 12,000 feet, I did a better job following the grassy benches east, reaching the valley bottom at the top of the talus headwall above Balsam Lake. I (prematurely) filled up on water here, then continued to the saddle between Peaks Eight and Seven, where I found another convenient lake.

Climbin’ side of Eight
I debated skipping Eight, since it was a side-trip on my traverse, but was glad I did not, as it had the day’s most thought-provoking scrambling. From the lake, I headed up to the right side of the ridge, following a series of steep gullies and corners connected by ledges. The climbing reminded me of the Minarets, with positive holds, but chossy rock and lots of loose debris. It made for careful climbing, especially on the upper, redder rock, which was even more rotten than the stuff below. I did not find a register on the seldom-visited summit, but the views were worth staying around. Leviathan, Jagged, and the Needles looked particularly spectacular to the south, with the snow from an early season storm hanging around on their north faces. That, plus the weaker sun from the west coast wildfires’ smoke, made it feel more like October, my normal Weminuche season.

Seven from Eight
The descent took at least as long as the ascent. I skipped refilling my water at the lake, and headed straight up Seven’s east face. Seven is made of some sort of quartzite, which is slick when wet, and the rock is angled to be slabby on this side. This made the melting snow problematic, especially closer to the top, but fortunately the face was mostly class 2-3, with plenty of options, and soon I was on the summit. I found a register here, and was pleased to see a remark that the traverse from Six went.

Jagged from Six-Seven ridge
Six is, however, far away, and the rock turns to garbage on the descent to the saddle. One side-effect of quartz’s hardness and slickness is that it makes particularly sharp and unstable talus. There were some class 3-4 notches along the way, but nothing to cause more than a few moments’ perplexity. Once past the low point, a broader ridge of black rock led to the next summit. Six is the ridge’s highpoint, and tall enough to make the list of Colorado’s 200 (or maybe 300?) highest peaks, so it sees a bit more traffic from list-baggers. It is also the first peak along the ridge to have a clear view of Noname Creek, particularly deep and broad for the region, and the impressive north faces of Animas, Monitor, and the northern Needles ridge.

Four from Five
Five is the highest of several minor bumps west of Six, reached via an annoyingly chossy but not difficult traverse around a lake to the south. I tagged the summit, signed in, and moved on. Four is even more annoying than Five, another traverse around a lake, but looser and with some seemingly-mandatory class 4 climbing along the ridge. It might be faster to drop down talus to the lake and reascend, but I was tired enough to prefer scrambly traversing to elevation loss and gain. Four is actually two minor bumps past the lake, and it might be more efficient to traverse the talus-slope north of these subpeaks. However, it was undoubtedly loose beneath the fresh snow, so I stayed on the ridge, finding a bit of fun class 4 terrain on the way up the first bump.

Heisspitz from Four
I was faced with a bout of indecision on Four’s summit, which I reached around 2:15. My planned return route was to drop to a slabby bench north of the ridge, follow that east, then drop again to Balsam Lake before making the thousand-foot climb to the Vestal-Trinity saddle. This would be straightforward from Four, but would require crossing a spur ridge if I continued to The Heisspitz, still almost a mile distant. I had a headlamp, and the weather was good, but I felt my will fading. Looking at the map, I somehow convinced myself that, from The Heisspitz, I could return via Tenmile Creek and the Animas. It would involve some 5-6 miles of unknown valley travel, but I figured that either there would be an old trail down Tenmile, or the lack of humans would result in more game trails. As for the Animas… I hoped for a similar situation, and one river ford and a bit of trespassing would get me to a well-maintained “trail.”

Going down…
So off to The Heisspitz I went. I slightly screwed myself traversing too low to the left, but this section of ridge was much better than the garbage between Six and Four, so I made good time to the final climb. There is supposedly some class 2-3 route to the summit, but I ignored it and mostly stayed closer to the crest. I was hoping for some hint in the register about the route up from Tenmile, but found nothing useful. I debated some more, but the return to the Vestal-Trinity saddle looked extremely depressing, so I committed to my plan and started down the west ridge. The rock was shockingly good and slabby, making for easy going to the shallow saddle before Point 12,552′.

The valley bottom looked perilously brushy, but game seemed to be using this as a pass, so I dropped north down the nearly 4000 feet to the creek. The route started out as loose scree, dirt, and snow, manageable but not ideal for descent. After some loose scree, I found pleasant turf in the middle, and remained pleased with my choice. The steep drainage I was following narrowed toward the bottom, with vertical terrain on either side of a creekbed, but fortunately the creek itself did not cliff out, and it was late enough in the season that I could follow the semi-stable talus in its bed all the way to willow country.

The final stretch to Tenmile Creek was a miserable thrash. I eventually found the creek, crossed, and thrashed up the other side, hoping to find open terrain or game trails away from the steeper creek bottom. To my surprise and delight, I found the faint trace of an old built trail, which does not appear on any map that I know of. Though it is hard to follow, and I lost it several times, it made the descent to the Animas fairly efficient, while it would have been an utter nightmare otherwise. This bit of ingenuity, exploration, and luck put me in a good enough mood to listen to happy downhill music (Girl Talk — thanks, Renee!). The trail seemed to be improving as I descended, but I lost it again about a half-mile from the river, and never found where it came out. I stayed high on the right, side-hilling my way around the flat creek junction, then dropped toward the Animas.

I should not be here
I found bits of faint path on the east side, but they were intermittent and annoying, so I looked for a potential ford. This would not be possible earlier in the season, but late in a dry year the Animas was no more than knee-deep. I grabbed a stick and forded with my shoes and socks on, then wrung them out on the other bank before finding the “trail.” Its gentle and consistent ruling grade would have been pleasantly runnable if I were fresh, but I spent plenty of time walking when the gravel surface became less than ideal. I finally closed the loop, and had only the slog out to Molas left. Aided by Metallica, I somehow summoned the energy to jog the flatter switchbacks and run the long meadow traverse at the top, and made it to my car just before headlamp time. I cooked up some vegetable curry with eggs, then passed out around 8:30.

This was my first big outing of which I was slightly proud in a long time. I wasn’t sure I would have the mental stamina, but like riding a bike, that is something you never lose. These may be the hardest Weminuche peaks to reach in a day without the train, and some of the least-visited. At this point, I think I only have one or two more long outings to clean out the Needle and Grenadier region. After that, my most remote remaining Weminuche peaks are those east of the Vallecito, including Nebo and Peters. While it will feel good to complete this project, I will miss having an easy reason to visit Colorado’s best peaks.

Ridgway, Whitehouse

Ridgeway and Whitehouse

I had some Sierra plans for the end of the summer, but with much of California on fire, and the rest enveloped in toxic smoke, I thought it best to head elsewhere until the barbecue is over. Mid- to late-September is too late for the Winds, so the natural choice for this time of year is the San Juans, Colorado’s best mountains. The afternoon storms are mostly past, the leaves are turning, and the Front Range tourists are mostly back at work and school (or at least tied up in endless Zoom meetings). I did not have any “must-do” peaks on my schedule this time, but I can always think of something to do in the Weminuche, and it had been awhile since I had done my trio of once-a-year headlamp approaches: Molas, Purgatory, and Vallecito.

Martin Gleeson of Ireland, RIP
I broke up the tedious drive across Nevada with some meaningless peak-bagging: pick something with 2000+ feet of prominence near the road, then bike and hike to the summit. This time I slept near Ely, which was brutally cold as always (34 in the morning!), then rode and hiked up Ward Mountain, a mound with some equipment on top. There was also a small cemetery near the nearby ghost town of Ward, which I found more interesting than the peak.

Coming in the way I did, it made sense to start with something out of Ouray, and Ridgway and Whitehouse fit nicely. Both are easy 13ers lying in the scenic and chossy region between town and Mount Sneffels, reached by the new-to-me Weehawken Trail. Whitehouse is visible from town, rising over 5000 feet in a mix of forest and colorful cliff bands. I had planned to do them as a bike shuttle, tagging “Corbett” before dropping down Oak Creek to town, but the traverse between Whitehouse and Corbett looked annoying.

Dawn on Eiger-rock
I slept at a sneaky spot off the Camp Bird Road, then drove over to the trailhead and finished my coffee before starting a bit after first light. (I would have felt bad camping directly in front of the “no camping here” sign, and didn’t want to pay $10 for a spot at Thistledown Campground across the road.) After too much time on packer-built and -ruined Sierra trails — trenches filled with pulverized dust and manure, interrupted by large and irregular steps — it was a pleasure to climb through a forest on a trail of smooth humus built for humans. Ouray calls itself “the Switzerland of America,” and for once the name felt apt for this sunrise climb. Across the valley, a steep and narrow cascade fell between to peaks to join the main Canyon Creek. The rock on the other side of Weehawken Creek reminded me of the Eiger: improbably steep and utterly rotten. Unlike in Switzerland, I doubt people try to climb these buttresses.

Hoodoos on Whitehouse
The trail mostly stays well above the narrow valley bottom, crossing various side-streams somehow still trickling this late in the season. As is frequently the case in this region, the valley’s sides are steep and decorated with hoodoos. The path eventually gives out in an open cirque, surrounded by Potosi, “Coffeepot,” Teakettle, and Ridgway. From there one can head more or less straight for Ridgway, surmounting a small third class choss-band, then crossing some grassy slopes to gain its south ridge. The main goat-path (and, to a lesser extent, human-path), switchbacks to the saddle between Ridgway and Whitehouse, but I thought the ridge looked easy enough and more direct. Sure enough, with only a couple short sections of class 3 I found myself on the false summit, a short ridge-walk from the top.

Teakettle and Sneffels
Sneffels looked particularly fine from this vantage, as did the peaks along the ridge to Potosi. Snow from the recent early-season storm lingered on higher north aspects, so my perch at the northern end of the San Juans accentuated the whiteness. In the clear Colorado air I could make out Lizard Head to the southwest, the Needles and Grenadiers to the south, and Uncompahgre to the east. There was a bit of noticeable haze over the plains 6000 feet below to the north, but these were the clearest skies I had enjoyed in awhile.

Ouray from Whitehouse
As expected, I found a faint use trail dropping east toward the saddle, skirting below a choss-pinnacle to join the switchbacks of the main approach. Whitehouse’s west side looks intimidating, but I skirted around to the north and soon found the easy class 2 gully leading to the summit plateau near the lower west summit. I had an easy walk to the cairn at the higher east summit, then looked over the abrupt north and east edges. Getting to Corbett looked annoying, with snowy choss and cliff bands getting in the way, so I decided instead to return to the saddle and descent Weehawken. I am getting too old to enjoy bombing down trails as I once did, but this one was soft and smooth enough to be fun for a change. I passed a few people headed in both directions, then hung out at car for awhile, enjoying the cool shade of an aspen grove and deciding where to head next.

Ramu Point

Ramu (r) and tricky ridge

I was up in Pine Creek for another day, and a late night and late start talking to some local friends limited my options. Not wanting to deal with the crowds, manure, and horse-steps on the main trail, I headed up the Gable Lakes drainage again to explore its west fork. I was low on trail food, and didn’t have any goal in mind other than getting up above the smoke and heat, and getting some exercise. I made the familiar ride up to the trailhead, locked my bike to an old gatepost, and started plodding up the trail.

Infinity Lake
Where it passes the old mining cabin, I continued straight on a use trail heading toward the first trail on the west fork. A branch descended to the first lake, then disappeared near the unsightly discarded barrels; hopefully whatever they contained has long ago drained out, as I often fill my water from the creek below. After some large talus, I reached another, larger lake with a decent-sized island. I had seen Peak 12,542′ the day before from Gable Lakes Peak, and decided that I had enough energy to climb it. I thought I could take some slabs trending left, then cut back through a cliff band and up a possibly miserable slope of sand and scrub to what looked like the summit.

Merriam, Royce, Feather
The slabs went quickly and, after a short class 3 scramble, I was above the cliff band. The upper slope was less pleasant, but there was enough rock on the sides of a sandy chute that I did not do much back-sliding on my way up. Topping out, I saw that I was a short way from the actual summit, southwest across a small plateau. I found a summit register from 2003, naming the peak “Ramu Point” after the mountain yellow-legged frogs (Rana muscosa) that supposedly inhabit the Gable Lakes drainage. I added my name after the entries from the large Sierra Challenge group, then sat to admire Steelhead Lake and Merriam-Royce-Feather to one side, and Mount Tom and the Owens Valley’s pall of smoke to the other.

Tom and… not the valley
Some of the people in the register had come from Steelhead and Pine Creek Pass, and it seemed like it might be easier to descend the valley north of where I had climbed, but the former would involve the miserable horse trail, and the latter had some cliff bands, so I simply retraced my steps, using the sand where I could. I passed a couple of women sitting at the lower lake, who I had passed earlier on the way up. They were one of only four parties I saw the whole day, versus the dozens I would have passed on the Pine Creek trail. I passed some woman in a swimsuit doing something next to her car on the bike down, then cooled off in the creek next to my car to recover from the afternoon heat. Summer has returned to the Owens Valley, with triple-digit temperatures from Bishop south. It’s going to be a long fire season.